Cygnus NG-12 arrives at ISS with increased science capability

by Chris Gebhardt

Less than 48 hours after launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, the NG-12 Cygnus cargo spacecraft from Northrop Grumman has arrived at the International Space Station.

The mission is debuting critical new capabilities for NASA as part of the CRS2 (Commercial Resupply Services 2) cargo contract, including payload late-load at the launch pad,  in-flight experiment communication with the ground, and the ability to dispose of external cargo elements from the Station.

NG-12 arrives at Station:

Following a flawless launch right on time at 09:59:47 EDT (13:59:47 UTC) on Saturday morning, the NG-12 Cygnus vehicle has enjoyed a smooth ride up to the International Space Station, raising its orbit from its initial 183 x 270 km insertion orbit up to the 413 x 425 km orbit of the International Space Station.

After a standard approach, Cygnus held 10 m away from the orbital outpost, allowing NASA astronauts Dr. Jessica Meir and Christina Koch to grab hold of it with Canadarm2.

Now firmly grasped by the Station’s arm, Dr. Meir and Koch will spend the next few hours repositioning Cygnus for berthing to Node-1 nadir’s (Earth-facing port) Common Berthing Mechanism on the Unity module.

Once berthed, the Station crew will take photographic surveys of Cygnus to document its post-launch and arrival condition before moving on to open the hatch and begin extracting the time-sensitive science experiments that were late-loaded into the craft less than 24 hours before its launch.

Those late-load, time-sensitive science experiments are a main upgraded feature for Cygnus as part of its CRS2 contract role for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Service efforts of the International Space Station out through at least 2024.

But the enhanced cargo configuration isn’t just to bring up more science to Station.

“We’ve also increased the capability of providing science data back to the scientists to accommodate more science and be more science-friendly,” noted Frank DeMauro, Vice President and General Manager of Space Systems Division at Northrop Grumman, in a one-on-one interview with NASASpaceflight.

This upgrade now gives scientists the ability to talk directly with their payloads while Cygnus is on the launch pad and in transit to the International Space Station.  It will also be a crucial part of Northrop Grumman’s plan to offer Cygnus as a free-flying science platform after it leaves the ISS.

During the CRS1 contract period from 2013 to April 2019, scientific payloads could not talk to scientists on the ground once they were loaded into the spacecraft for launch. 

Ice rains down from Antares as fire and thrust push the rocket off the launch pad in Virginia at the start of the NG-12 mission. (Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2)

“They would get data from before we loaded it, and then the next time they would get data from it was after the crew removed it from the vehicle on orbit,” noted Mr. DeMauro.

“Now they can actually command and receive telemetry from their payload both on the ground and while we’re in flight, which is very valuable to scientists.”

But the science-friendly advancements for the CRS2 contract don’t end there, with Mr. DeMauro relating that Northrop Grumman also worked hard to get science facilities close to the Wallops launch location so scientists could process their payloads more or less at the launch site before handing them over, the exact process that occurs at the Kennedy Space Center

“What we did for NG-11 [in April] is that those payloads were processed at KSC and then brought to Wallops.  Now we actually have life science facilities at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, we have scientific laboratories at both Eastern Virginia Medical School and Wallops.

“And so scientists can actually work on their payloads and prepare them very close to the pad where they’re going to deliver them for launch.  And the goal there was, from a science standpoint, we wanted the scientists to really have the same experience they do at KSC at Wallops.”

That new capability has now supported ten mid-deck locker experiments – as they are known to NASA – that were late-loaded into Cygnus Friday afternoon, six of which were powered.

They will be the first experiments removed from Cygnus once it is securely berthed to the Station and its hatch opened.

Cygnus berthed to Node-1 nadir. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2).

In addition to the slight increase in upmass capability (3,500 kg to 3,700 kg) now provided by Cygnus for the CRS2 contract comes a significant leap and the amount of cargo Cygnus can dispose of at the end of its mission.

For the first time, Cygnus is capable of helping NASA dispose of external cargo from the Station.  That external disposal cargo can be mounted to cargo pallets on the outside of Cygnus via Canadarm2 robotic operations.

The CRS1 version of Cygnus was only able to dispose of internal cargo with a total down-mass capability of roughly 2,450 kg.

With the new CRS2 upgrades, Cygnus is now capable of taking away a mix of internal and external cargo (totaling roughly 3,700 kg) from the International Space Station and is now one of three cargo crafts capable of disposing of external payload elements, with the other two being Japan’s HTV and SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vehicles.

Of note, part of NASA’s requests to Northrop Grumman for the CRS2 contract was the ability to fly external cargo-only versions of Cygnus, and this external cargo disposal capability is part of that overall request.

But NASA has not asked Northrop Grumman to fly any external-only cargo missions of Cygnus; in fact, NASA has – as of now – turned on or activated all six CRS2 contracted flights of Cygnus out through 2024, and all of them are pressurized Cygnus missions that will fly on Antares rockets from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

NASA had also asked Northrop Grumman to be able to support larger Cygnus crafts that would have to be launched on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of the CRS2 contract, but the agency has opted not to execute that request either at this time. 

Overview of NG-12 mission. (Credit: NASA/NASA Advisory Council Oct. 2019)

As Mr. DeMauro noted in his one-on-one interview with NASASpaceflight, six CRS2 cargo missions are the baseline minimum, and NASA can ask for more if they determine there is a need.

As was the case with the CRS1 contract, NASA could opt to extend the CRS2 contract awards beyond the six guaranteed minimum missions or beyond the 2024 end of the current contract period with the three providers instead of going through an entire new CRS3 contract process if Station’s lifetime is extended beyond 2024 – which looks likely.

Right now, the general plan is to space out the six CRS2 Cygnus flights at regular intervals.  

Northrop Grumman can generally support two Cygnus missions a year.  But Mr. DeMauro notes they could support three flights a year if NASA deemed that necessary.

“We have worked hard on both the rocket and spacecraft sides to put in place the production schedules to possibly support more than two missions per year.  Right now the planned cadence is roughly two per year, but we could accommodate a third mission if NASA decided that to be the case.”

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